President Donald Trump’s temporary hiring freeze on federal jobs is disproportionately affecting a group of his most loyal supporters: veterans, who receive preference in federal hiring. Some already have had job interviews canceled or postponed, advocacy groups say.
The hiring freeze also applies to the Department of Veterans Affairs, something that deeply troubles veterans groups and lawmakers, who say the freeze complicates the provision of veterans services by an agency that is chronically understaffed.
“Our nation’s veterans should not be made to sacrifice any more than they already have while you review federal hiring,” a group of Democratic lawmakers, led by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., wrote in a letter to Trump, urging him to exempt veterans from the freeze, that had 53 signatures as of Thursday morning.
“This freeze raises serious concerns about the president’s commitment to veterans and improving the VA,” said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran who’s the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Over the past day, countless IAVA members have contacted us concerned about the future of their health care. Job seekers waiting to hear about a hiring determination just had their hope dashed.”
Trump’s presidential memorandum, issued Monday, ordered “a freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees to be applied across the board in the executive branch” for 90 days, except for positions in the military or otherwise affecting national security and public safety.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president wanted to stop “money getting wasted in Washington on a job that is duplicative.”
“I think what the president is showing through the hiring freeze, first and foremost, is that we’ve got to respect the American taxpayer,” he said Monday.
Nearly 3,000 civilian Defense Department positions that are currently listed in federal employment sites, along with almost 2,300 VA posts, cannot be filled until the freeze is lifted.
Some veterans say Trump, like many Americans who cheered his federal freeze, thinks of all federal workers as well-paid bureaucrats in Washington offices.
“The simple reality is that Donald Trump talked a lot about vets and jobs when he was campaigning for president, and this federal hiring freeze is denying vets what they need more than anything after coming home and getting out of the service – not another standing ovation at a football game, but a good job, a good career,” said Will Fischer, executive director of the Union Veterans Council at the AFL-CIO and a Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq as a Marine.
Fischer pointed out that more than 90 percent of veterans with federal jobs work outside the Washington metro area. “You’re talking about the largest employer of veterans in the world, but they only think of Washington when they say ‘federal employees,’ ” he said.
The national commander of the American Legion, Charles E. Schmidt, said the hiring freeze was particularly hard on veterans with disabilities. About 15 percent of veterans working at the VA and nearly 18 percent of veterans at the Defense Department have disabilities.
In a statement, Schmidt urged private companies to step up their efforts to hire vets with disabilities, to make up for the hiring freeze.
President Barack Obama made it easier for veterans to get federal jobs with a 2009 order known as the Veterans Employment Initiative. More than 623,000 veterans depend on federal paychecks, according to the most recent report from the Office of Personnel Management.
Spicer defended the hiring freeze earlier this week, calling it a pause to allow time for new leadership at the VA to assess the situation.
“Hiring more people isn’t the answer,” he said. “Right now, the system is broken.”
The VA has 41,500 vacancies for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals across its sprawling health care system, according to a 2015 report.
Acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder told McClatchy in an email that the agency will exempt from the hiring freeze “anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including frontline caregivers.”
The VA provides care for more than 9 million veterans through 1,700 facilities it operates across the country. The quality of that service has been questioned since 2014, when the VA acknowledged that 23 veterans had died while they were waiting for appointments.
Peter Kauffmann, senior adviser to VoteVets, a liberal veterans advocacy group, called the inclusion of the VA in the hiring freeze “the ultimate insult.”
“If his executive order leads to preventable deaths, that will be on Donald Trump’s hands, and we will hold him personally accountable,” he said.
During his presidential campaign, Trump frequently promised to overhaul the VA, calling it “the most corrupt” and “probably the most incompetently run agency.” It remains to be seen what his administration will do differently when it comes to solving the agency’s struggles to provide services to veterans.
“You can’t hire your way out of it and you can’t fire your way out of it,” said Jonah Czerwinski, who served as a senior adviser in the department from 2009 to 2013.
Trump has proposed a 10-point plan to overhaul the agency and named David Shulkin to be VA secretary. Shulkin is a rarity in the Trump administration – someone who also served in the Obama administration, where he was the VA’s undersecretary of health. Shulkin’s Senate confirmation hearing is set for Feb. 1.